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A Rare Little Bird Causes a Big Stir in Berkeley

| November 19, 2013
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By Tracey Taylor, Berkeleyside

Painted redstart in a Berkeley tree on Sunday, Nov. 17, the first time this species has been recorded in Alameda County. (Cal Walters/Berkeleyside)

Painted redstart in a Berkeley tree on Sunday, Nov. 17, the first time this species has been recorded in Alameda County. (Cal Walters/Berkeleyside)

This weekend, hundreds of bird enthusiasts flocked to a Berkeley neighborhood to try to catch a glimpse of a beautiful little bird that’s never been seen before in Alameda County.

The painted redstart (Myioborus pictus) was still hanging around the Elmwood neighborhood on Monday, flitting between three large trees located on three adjacent streets.

Richmond-based graphic designer Lory Poulson, who came to the neighborhood with her partner Susan Gluck to investigate, said they heard the warbler before they saw it.

“It has a distinctive call that sounds like ‘too weet’ with the emphasis on the ‘weet,’” she said. She used her binoculars to scan a large birch tree on Lewiston Street where the pair had seen the redstart.

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The story started Wednesday last week when Katie Bertsche, a scientific illustrator who lives on Prince Street, spotted a flash of bright red in a poplar tree while sitting on her deck.

“I thought, what is that? There are no red birds in California,” she told Berkeleyside. Bertsche ran inside to look up the bird in a reference book and to grab her camera. She had seen a painted redstart before, in southeastern Arizona, its natural habitat, and was fairly certain this was the same species.

Bertsche tried to snap some photos but the battery in her camera was dead. By this time she was cursing, she said, laughing.

Eventually Bertsche was able both to take photographs and record the sound the bird was making.

“It was calling a lot, not singing,” she said.

Bertsche posted her findings on the Golden Gate Audubon Facebook page and reached out to a contact at UC Berkeley’s Museum of Verterbrate Zoology. “A lot of people will want to see it,” she was told.

That day, local bird experts Bob Lewis and Rusty Scalf came to see the redstart for themselves. They didn’t find it but spotted it the following day.

Lewis, who runs Bay Area birding site Wingbeats, said the last sighting of a painted redstart reported for Northern California was last November. “This is the first sighting for Alameda County,” he said via email.

The painted redstart on a telephone cable in Berkeley. (Cal Walters/Berkeleyside)

The painted redstart on a telephone cable in Berkeley. (Cal Walters/Berkeleyside)

The painted redstart belongs to a group of passerines called wood warblers, some of the most colorful of North American birds, according to Lewis.

“The normal range of this bird is in Arizona, south into Mexico,” he said. “When the California Bird Records Committee published ‘Rare Birds of California’ in 2007, only six records were known for the state of California, and all were from Southern California. Since that time, one was seen in Auburn in 2010, one in Point Reyes in 2012.”

Lewis said there may be a gap in sightings because Rare Birds of California only records to 2006, and the global online tool for birders, eBird, doesn’t have a lot of data pre-2009.

“In any regard, it’s an exciting find,” he said.

Lewis said males and females of the painted redstart species are identical, so it’s not known whether this is a male or female.

How or why this particular bird ended up in Berkeley is something of a mystery.

“Many of these species migrate to Central and South America to spend the winter, and some few individuals get lost on their route, sometimes migrating in reverse direction, sometimes blown off course by storms, or overshooting their targets,” Lewis said.

Once the news was out that the bird was in Berkeley — Bertsche had posted a Rare Bird Alert for the benefit of the birding community — it was clear there would be a rush to see it.

Sensitive to the fact that her neighborhood could become “a mob scene” if many birders descended on the area, Bertsche made a flyer which she posted in neighbors’ mailboxes around Prince, Woolsey and Lewiston — the three streets on which the redstart had been spotted, in, respectively, a poplar, an oak, and a birch. She wrote:

“Dear Neighbors, I wanted to let you know about the sudden proliferation of Birdwatchers with Binoculars and cameras in the neighborhood! There has been a rare sighting of a bird called a Painted Redstart, which is often seen between Prince St. and Woolsey St. Normally this bird lives in Arizona and this is the first record of this bird being seen in Alameda county. As a result a lot of people are interested in seeing it while it is here.

I have been allowing birders access to my yard to look for it, birders should be polite about private property, please let me and them know if you are ok with allowing them to access your driveway or yard, or if people [are] being a bother, and I will convey this information to the birder community.”

Bertsche included a photograph of a redstart and her phone number on the flyer so that people could contact her for more information.

But quickly her “phone exploded,” she said, prompting her to leave voice mail messages for the dozens of callers with updates on the location of the small bird.

Bertsche said neighbors have been very gracious about having the birders in their midst. She estimates that more than 200 people have seen the bird since Wednesday.

Poulson said the redstart was very “hyper” when she and Gluck saw it Monday. “It’s moving all the time, turning 180 degrees back and forth,” she said.

Bertsche has only lived in the area for a year and said this event has proved a great way for her to meet the neighbors, including one man on her street who, it turns out, leads bird walks.

“When these sorts of things happen, people who don’t know each other connect and get to know each other through a shared interest,” she said.

Bertsche is keeping a guestbook for birders to sign and, so far, enthusiasts have come from as far as Chico, Point Reyes and Lodi.

She’s working on a painting of the special bird. She said the only reason she spotted it originally was because she had told herself to start each day by getting a coffee and then taking it to her deck to do a drawing.

“I’d been spending too much time doing non-art work, in front of the computer,” she said.

A fortuitous decision that has made many bird enthusiasts very happy.

Cal Walters, whose close-ups of the painted redstart in Berkeley are included with this story, took the photographs Sunday, Nov. 17. Other photographs of the bird have been posted on eBird by Bob Lewis, Vicki Robinson, and Michael Park, among others. And Jerry Ting has posted some striking shots on Flickr.

The work of Katie Bertsche, along with that of other members of the California Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, is currently on show at the Environmental Education Center at Tilden Nature Area in Tilden Regional Park. View the exhibition’s flyer for details.

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